Chef Lenny Russo takes on World Expo

  • Updated: May 23, 2014 - 1:53 PM

Lenny Russo leads the effort for the Minnesota contingent at next year’s World Expo in Italy. The theme couldn’t be tastier: food.

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Lenny Russo shopped at a farmers market in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where he was part of a cultural exchange with the U.S. Embassy last year.

Photo: Christopher Wurst,

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Save the date and book a flight to Milan.

That’s where the next World Expo will be held in 2015 for a six-month stretch. Its theme — food — couldn’t be a better fit. Where else would you want to celebrate our thrice-daily opportunities for sustenance?

Minnesota will be well-represented in the U.S. pavilion, with Mr. Locavore himself, Lenny Russo (chef/owner of Heartland Restaurant and Farm Direct Market in St. Paul), chairing the state effort, under the umbrella of the James Beard Foundation, the International Culinary Center and the U.S. State Department.

It’s just one of the duties he’s taken on as part of the elite American Chef Corps, a culinary partnership with the State Department and the James Beard Foundation. Recently he hosted the Swedish ambassador, who was visiting as part of a tour focused on food sustainability.

Last year, he spent two weeks in a cultural exchange at the U.S. Embassy in the capital of Ljubljana, Slovenia, cooking his way through a program that highlighted the farm-to table philosophy.

Now he’s ready to take on the world. The World’s Fair, that is. At least that’s what Americans call it. The rest of the globe refers to it as the World Expo.

Russo is working diligently with Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and TV host Andrew Zimmern to assure a significant Minnesota presence at the event that will knock the socks off those who make the decision for a future fair, the smaller 2023 World Expo.

In fact, there hasn’t been a U.S. World’s Fair since 1984, when it opened in New Orleans.

It’s about time to bring it home. Home as in Minnesota, says Ritchie.

But 2015 comes first, and they are racing against the clock for a razzle-dazzle presentation. At the U.S. level, the thematic programing revolves around “American Food 2.0: United to Feed the Planet.” The goal is to demonstrate our food systems and innovations that reflect sustainability, or what’s called “from farm to table and back to farm.”

Urban Organics of St. Paul has committed to represent the state in Milan in what will be at least a weeklong demo, if not for the entire six months. Walleye and greens will be grown in a display of aquaponics that replicates what takes place in the former Hamm’s brewery in St. Paul, where a contained water-pumping and filtration system from Pentair, also from the Twin Cities, is used to grow organic vegetables and fish with little wasted water.

Fred Haberman, one of the founders of Urban Organics, was still bubbling with excitement from a meeting in New York City about the expo. “Quite frankly, we just decided to do this. Now we have to design a system. It’s very, very early in the process,” he said.

“We’re excited to show the world that what happens in Minnesota can be exported elsewhere for good — that you can grow fish and produce in a contained system and it’s not influenced by the vagaries of weather.”

The details of the U.S. pavilion are still being worked out. Though there will be rotating displays to cover the 26 weeks of the event, it’s uncertain yet if the presentations will be divvied up among states or regions. There will be opportunities for chefs to work their magic in the restaurants that will be part of the pavilion, and the Minnesota planners hope that means the walleye and greens from Urban Organics can be used throughout the duration of the event.

In the meantime, Russo wants more chefs on board — and more corporate sponsors to join 3M, which was the first to make a commitment to the Minnesota arm of the expo.

“We want to make sure that we’re the most prominent state,” said Russo. “We’re setting the tone for the rest.”

The pavilion will occupy about 35,000 square feet. Compare that with Heartland’s 25,000 square feet and you get a sense of the space they’re working with.

If all goes well, Minnesota’s presence will draw the attention of the international body that decides on the location of the expos. Major ones are held every five years (in the years ending in 0 and 5), with smaller events held in between, the latter bringing in 10 million to 15 million visitors.

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